By ALFREDO PEÑA Associated Press
CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico (AP) — A road trip to Mexico for cosmetic surgery ended with two Americans dead — and two others found alive in a rural area near the Gulf coast — after a violent shootout and abduction that was captured on video, officials said Tuesday.
The surviving Americans were back on U.S. soil after being sped to the border near Brownsville, the southernmost tip of Texas, in a convoy of ambulances and SUVs escorted by Mexican military Humvees and National Guard trucks with mounted machine guns.
A relative of one of the victims said Monday that the four had traveled together from the Carolinas so one of them could get a tummy tuck surgery from a doctor in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, where Friday’s kidnapping took place.
The survivors crossed the border Tuesday afternoon and the U.S. government was working to repatriate the two bodies, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters. The Americans were taken to Valley Regional Medical Center with an FBI escort, the Brownsville Herald reported. A spokesperson for the hospital referred all inquiries to the FBI.
The U.S. citizens were located in a rural area east of Matamoros called Ejido Longoreño on the way to the Gulf coast known as “Bagdad Beach,” according to a Mexican state law enforcement official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the case. Word of their location came to authorities before dawn Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear if the two bodies were also being returned to the U.S. In announcing the Americans had been found, Tamaulipas Gov. Américo Villarreal did not provide details on the extent of the wounded person’s injuries.
Shortly after entering Mexico, the four were caught amid fighting between rival cartel groups in the city. Video and photographs taken during and immediately after the abduction show the Americans’ white minivan sitting beside another vehicle, with at least one bullet hole in the driver’s side window. A witness said the two vehicles had collided. Almost immediately, several men in tactical vests and toting assault rifles arrived in another vehicle to surround the scene.
The gunmen walked one of the Americans into the bed of a white pickup, then dragged and loaded the three others. Terrified drivers sat silently in their cars, hoping not to draw their attention. Two of the victims appeared to be motionless.
Officials said a Mexican woman also died in Friday’s crossfire.
The shootings illustrate the terror that has prevailed for years in Matamoros, a city dominated by factions of the powerful Gulf drug cartel who often fight among themselves. Amid the violence, thousands of Mexicans have disappeared in Tamaulipas state alone.
Villarreal confirmed the deaths by phone during a morning news conference by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, saying details about the four abducted Americans had been confirmed by prosecutors.
López Obrador said one person was in custody.
“Those responsible will be found and they are going to be punished,” the president said. He referenced arrests made in the 2019 killings of nine U.S.-Mexican dual citizens in Sonora near the U.S. border.
He complained about the U.S. media’s coverage of the missing Americans, accusing them of sensationalism. “It’s not like that when they kill Mexicans in the United States, they go quiet like mummies.”
“It’s very unfortunate, they (the U.S. government) have the right to protest like they have,” López Obrador said. “We really regret that this happens in our country.”
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland expressed his sympathy for the families of the victims.
“The cartels are responsible for the deaths of Americans,” Garland said. “The DEA and the FBI are doing everything possible to dismantle and disrupt and ultimately prosecute the leaders of the cartels and the entire networks that they depend on.”
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. is working with Mexican officials to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the killings.
The FBI had offered a $50,000 reward for the victims’ return and the arrest of the kidnappers.
Robert Williams said in a telephone interview that his brother, 38-year-old Eric Williams, was among the kidnapped Americans. The brothers are from South Carolina but now live in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina, he said.
Williams described his brother as “easygoing” and “fun-spirited.”
He didn’t know his brother was traveling to Mexico until after the abduction hit the news. But from looking at his brother’s Facebook posts, he thinks his brother did not consider the trip dangerous.
“He thought it would be fun,” Williams said. He hadn’t heard anything about his brother’s whereabouts, he said.